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Baseball Slang

Baseball Slang

The following is a list of baseball phrases which have become idioms in American English. For phrases relating to the game of baseball.


B
ballpark: in the ballpark, ballpark figure, and out of the ballpark - "Ballpark" has been used to mean a broad area of approximation or similarity, or a range within which comparison is possible; this usage OED dates to 1960. Another meaning, "sphere of activity or influence", is cited in 1963. "In the (right) ballpark", meaning "within reasonable bounds" dates to 1968. A "ballpark figure" or "ballpark estimate", one that is reasonably accurate, dates to 1967. Out of the ballpark can also mean to do well; see home run. This is a slang term more commonly used outside of baseball culture.
batting 1000 or batting a thousand - Getting everything in a series of items right. In baseball, someone with a batting average of one thousand (written as 1.000) has had a hit for every at bat in the relevant time period (e.g. in a game). Also used ironically when someone is getting everything wrong.
big league(s) - used as a noun ("You're in the big leagues now") or an adjective ("big-league lawyer"). OED cites "big league" as specifically American major-league baseball, and cites its first use in 1899; the non-baseball use appears in 1947.
brush-back - To subvert or threaten verbally. In baseball, a nickname for any pitch intended to establish a pitcher's command of the inside portion of the strike zone, usually involving throwing a pitch at or near a hitter who may be covering that portion of the strike zone.
bush-league (n. or adj.) - amateur, unsophisticated, unprofessional. From the baseball term for a second-rate baseball league (n.) and therefore its players (adj., as in bush-league pitcher etc). OED cites its first baseball use as 1906, non-baseball in 1914.
C
Charley horse - sudden stiffness or cramp in the leg. Of unknown etymology; CDS cites its first use c. 1887 as baseball slang; OED states such cramps occur "especially in baseball players" and cites this usage to 1888.
cover one's bases; cover all the bases - Ensure safety. In baseball, a player covers a base by standing close to it, ensuring a runner can not reach it safely. Also, a G-rated way of saying "CYA".
curve, curveball - as in "she really threw me a curveball" -- A surprise, often completely and totally unexpected. The curveball is a pitch in baseball designed to fool the batter by dropping unexpectedly. AHDI dates this usage to the mid-1900s.
D
drop the ball - To fail in one's responsibilities, make an error, or miss an opportunity. A reference to fielding, when catching a fly ball is expected to be easy, often resulting in changing of the game's momentum. ADHI dates the general usage to around 1950.
F
foot in the bucket - To act timidly or cowardly. A batter who steps away from home plate with his leading foot (usu. in fear of being struck by a pitched ball) instead of a straight-ahead stride is said to "step in the bucket."
G
get to first base - To succeed in the initial step of something, such as getting a job interview or asking someone out on a date. Among American youth, it refers to kissing someone on a date. OED cites the first usage in 1938, the latter in 1962. Similarily, to get to second base and to get to third base vaguely refer to more sexual acts, though some people may have very specific definitions of what each term means. Finally, to reach home means to have sex.
go for extra bases - to strive for greater results, most commonly with sexual acts.
"Going, going, gone!" - Dramatic description of anything departed. This phrase is used when a home run is hit by baseball announcers such as Mel Allen.
go to bat for (someone) - To give assistance to; defend. AHDI dates this usage to the early 1900s, the original meaning to bat as a substitute (see Pinch-hit, below), but transferred to a more general use of helping out one's team.
H
hardball, play hardball - Tough, aggressive. Refers to the comparison between balls in baseball and softball. Baseball is generally considered the more difficult game. As a synonym for baseball, OED dates this use to 1883; its non-baseball use appears in 1973
home run, as in hit a home run, hit it out of the park or knock it out of the park - To succeed completely at something (opposite of strike out); OED cites this usage to 1965. In a sexual context, it means complete success at having sex, especially with someone desirable.
I
"It ain't over 'till it's over!" - A famous quotation from baseball player Yogi Berra; one of many yogiisms. In sports, it means that a game isn't over until time expires, the final out is registered, etc., and that the players need to stay mentally focused until the game is officially over. The term comes into play when a team has a large lead but then starts to let their guard down, especially when there is time left for the losing team to rally (and possibly win the game). The original and self-evident adage, misstated famously by Yogi, is "The game is not over until the last man is out." Another variant was Earl Weaver's "The opera's not over until the fat lady sings!"
"It's deja vu all over again!" - Another famous yogiism. It's a redundant way of saying "Here we go again!" It has come into general circulation in the language to describe any situation which seems to be observably repeating itself.
K
knock the cover off the ball - to succeed beyond expectation. Derived from the act of hitting the ball exceptionally hard, so as to make the leather covering come off.
L
left field - as in "that insult really came out of left field" -- Unusual, unexpected, or irrational. AHDI dates this idiom back to the mid-1900s; it also states that the precise allusion is disputed, but a number of theories exist. Rumored to originally describe fans who came to Yankee Stadium to see Babe Ruth (a right fielder) but who bought tickets for the wrong side of the field. Less commonly, someone "plays out in left field" if they do not contribute to a team. This usage stems from the common perception (probably partially derived in children's sandlot and Little League games) that a left fielder usually is among the worst on his team in fielding skills, and may be considered a liability on defense. Another legend is that the phrase originates from Chicago's old West Side Park which had a mental hospital located behind left field. Visiting players came to refer to something as odd to be 'out in left field.' The flaw in that story is that Cook County Hospital was behind third base, not left field.
Lou Gehrig's disease - Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), named after the famed New York Yankee whose affliction with the fatal disease brought it to national attention.
N
"Nice guys finish last" - Attributed to baseball manager Leo Durocher in 1946; according to Durocher's 1975 autobiography, he was misquoted: "Take a look at them. All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last." Sometimes taken to mean that people sometimes fail at something, even when someone is working hard, playing by the rules and success seems well-deserved; or even that such fair play will actually result in the loss. The latter sense is often used as a justification or rationalization for immoral or unfair behavior.
O
off base - Unawares or by surprise, usually in the phrase "caught off base"; OED dates to 1935. Meaning misguided, mistaken, or working on faulty assumptions, this usage dates to 1940. Both these uses derive from the situation of a runner being away from a base and thus in a position to being put out (1872).
out of left field - See left field.
P
pinch-hit - to act as a substitute or stand-in for someone, especially in an emergency. In baseball, sometimes a substitute batter would be brought in, especially at a crucial point in the game. OED gives the first possible non-baseball use in 1931, and the first definitive non-sport use in 1957
Play ball - To cooperate. Before every baseball game, the umpire shouts "play ball" in order to start the game.
R
rain check - a ticket given to a spectator at an outdoor event providing for a refund of his entrance money or admission at a later date, should the event be interrupted by rain; an assurance of a deferred extension of an offer, especially an assurance that a customer can take advantage of a sale later if the item or service offered is not available (as by being sold out); or a (sometimes vague) promise to accept a social offer at an unnamed later date. The latter two meanings derive from the first, which OED states was first used in 1884; its first written entry into non-baseball usage is cited as 1930
rhubarb - A heated argument or noisy dispute; especially, between players on a playing field. Originally the word traditionally muttered by actors in a play to provide background noise; OED and CDS both credit sportscaster Red Barber with first using the term to describe a disturbance, at a baseball game in 1943; OED's first non-baseball cite is 1949.
right off the bat - immediately; without any delay. OED dates this term to 1914 in Maclean's, a Canadian magazine. An older term, "hot from the bat" dates to the 1888 play Meisterschaft by Mark Twain.
S
"Say it ain't so, Joe!" - An expression of disbelief. A reference to the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when the Chicago White Sox lost the World Series on purpose. When Shoeless Joe Jackson was implicated in the scandal, an apocryphal story says that a young fan approached him and said, "Say it ain't so, Joe!".
screwball - Eccentric, zany, or crazy; OED dates this usage to 1933. The screwball is a rarely used pitch (because of its effect on the arm) that is intended to behave erratically -- it "breaks" in the opposite direction a curveball would break. Its most famous users were New York Giants — Carl Hubbell and Christy Mathewson (who called it the "fadeaway" pitch).
seasoned pro - one who maintains and progresses skills acquired through experience, a veteran.
second base/get to second base - General reference to advancing physical intimacy with a member of the opposite sex. Commonly used in question form ("Did you get to second base?"). A positive reply typically implies that more than kissing has occurred. Outside of a sexual context, this can mean advancing beyond the first step in a given process, such as landing a job interview when one merely expected to schedule one.
second-guess - to anticipate the actions of another through guesswork, or outguess; cionversely, to criticize or question actions or decisions of (someone), usually after the results of those actions or decisions are known. Verb back-formed from second-guesser, a spectator who criticizes the actions of a team or the decisions of the umpire; guesser was baseball slang for an umpire, thus such a spectator considered himself a "second umpire". OED dates second-guesser to 1937, second-guess in its predictive sense to 1941, and its critical sense to 1946.
southpaw - A left-handed person. Originally, according to OED, it meant the left hand itself (1828), then by extension to a left-handed pitcher (1891), then in non-baseball usage (referring to a cat, 1955); the final transition to a non-athletic left-handed person in general makes its print appearance in 1970. Traditional (though unprovable) explanation of origin: to avoid the sun shining into the eyes of a batter during the afternoon, every ballfield was built with center field aligned east or northeast of home plate. Thus, a right-handed pitcher's throwing hand would throw from the north side of the pitcher's mound, and a left-handed pitcher from the south; accordingly, a left-hander was called a "southpaw".
step up to the plate - or shortened to step up -- To rise to an occasion in life. Refers to when a player must approach home plate to take a turn at batting. OED cites baseball usage in 1875, general usage in 1919.
strike - as in "strike out", "three strikes, you're out", "a strike against you", "he was born with two strikes against him", etc. -- In baseball, a strike is when the batter fails to hit a good pitch. A batter with three strikes is out and stops batting. The word strike has crept into common English usage to mean a failure or shortcoming. When a person has "gotten three strikes" and "struck out", they have failed completely. See also A swing and a miss.
a swing and a miss - An attempt and subsequent failure. One way to get a strike. See also strike.
swing for the fences - to attempt to achieve beyond most reasonable expectations.
switch-hitter - Slang for bisexual (OED, 1960). Refers to players who are capable of hitting as a left-handed or right-handed batter (OED, 1948).
T
three strikes law - from the phrase "Three strikes and you're out"; pertaining to laws passed in the United States that mandates minimum penalties for three convictions for serious criminal offenses ("strikes"). In baseball, a player is retired ("out") from his turn at bat if he gets three strikes.
touch base, as in "we'll touch base at the meeting" - To ensure everyone has the same information. In baseball, a player who is touching a base is not in danger of being put out. May also be a military term.
W
whole new ball game / brand new ball game ; whole 'nother ball game - In baseball, an announcer says "it's a whole new ball game" when the trailing team ties the score (usually after the trailing team has been behind by several runs), referring to the fact that both teams are right back to where they started at the beginning of the game. In common usage, a "whole new ball game" or "brand new ball game" signifies a drastic turn of events. A "whole 'nother ball game" signifies something completely unrelated, different, or irrelevant.